By Jim Morris
VICTORIA – For the first time in a long time Hilary Caldwell is going to have some spare time on her hands.
The Olympic and world championship backstroke medallist has decided to retire from swimming. Suddenly the 27-year-old doesn’t have a routine to follow or a schedule to keep. And she’s fine with that.
“I’m kind of excited,” said the White Rock, B.C., native who trained at the Swimming Canada High Performance Centre – Victoria. “I haven’t had a free summer to do whatever I want in about 13 years. I have a lot of friends I owe visits to.”
Caldwell had toyed with the idea of retirement after last year’s FINA World Championships in Budapest. She decided after Christmas to travel to Gold Coast in Australia and train at Griffith University with coach Michael Bohl, with the support of HPC-Victoria Head Coach Ryan Mallette and his support staff.
Caldwell had already made up her mind that the recent Commonwealth Games at Gold Coast would be her last competition. Instead of returning to training immediately following the Games, she headed to New Zealand for a trip with friends. She was comfortable with the decision but still wasn’t prepared for the flood of emotions she felt climbing out of the pool following her final swim.
“I got out of the pool and the first person gave me a hug,” said Caldwell, who finished fifth in the 200-metre backstroke. “I got quite emotional, a lot more than I thought I would.
“I’m good with it but it’s weird. It has been my whole life, 20-plus years and it’s done. It will be a change, but I think a good one.”
John Atkinson, Swimming Canada’s High Performance Director, praised Caldwell for a career that saw her win bronze medals in the 200-m backstroke at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games and Barcelona 2013 FINA World Championships.
“I would like to congratulate Hilary on her swimming career,” said Atkinson. “She has been a great competitor who was very focused on maximizing her performance.
“Winning world championship and Olympic medals was a great achievement and we all wish her well in her life post swimming.”
Ryan Mallette, head coach at the High Performance Centre – Victoria, said Caldwell was fueled by determination and perseverance.
“Hilary was not necessarily the most talented athlete that we ever had but she was definitely the most determined,” said Mallette. “If you set a goal in front of her she was able to pursue that with a vigor no other athlete I ever worked with had.”
Ryan Cochrane, a two-time Olympic medallist who trained in Victoria with Caldwell called her “a smart, incredibly quick-witted, passionate woman.”
Caldwell had to fight to earn her success, said Cochrane. Whenever someone doubted her ability, she proved them wrong.
“You get athletes who are really good when they’re 12 to 16, it comes a little easier and they get a taste of success early,” said Cochrane. “Hilary was not one of those swimmers.
“She had to overcome so much. Everybody didn’t believe in her when she was younger . . . but it was always inspiring to see a woman who overcame a lot of obstacles to get to be one of the best in the world.”
Mallette said Caldwell was an example to other swimmers in the program.
“Hilary set the bar for hard work,” he said. “Hilary set the bar for work ethic. Hilary set the bar for what you can do if you put your mind to something.
“She was the standard the young kids could follow in terms of all those things.”
During her career Caldwell also won a gold medal in the 200-m backstroke at the 2015 Pan Am Games in Toronto and a bronze at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Scotland. She was part of the silver-medal winning 4×100-m medley relay at the 2016 FINA World Championships (25m) in Windsor, Ont.
The Olympic medal in Rio was the pinnacle.
“An Olympic medal is something I dreamed about since I was a kid,” she said. “It took me a while before I was really OK with that performance because it wasn’t the time I wanted.
“It took me a while to get to the point it doesn’t matter what the time was in the Olympic final, it’s about the place. That one is pretty special.”
The Pan Am gold, coming just before 2015 FINA World Championships in Kazan, Russia, also was memorable.
“Going in I wasn’t that excited to swim Pan Ams,” Caldwell admitted. “It was sort of an interruption on the way to world championships. And then doing it before that hometown crowd, standing on top of the podium and having everyone sing O Canada with you, that was quite special as well.”
Besides being one of the country’s best swimmers, Caldwell also sported the most tattoos. Her body is decorated with passages from favourite songs and books, a tribute to her former coach Randy Bennett, who died of cancer in April 2015, the Olympic rings, and a moose antler on her neck, part of an inside joke with her mother.
There are plenty of things about swimming Caldwell won’t miss, like the early mornings workouts and long hours of practice. She does know what she will miss.
“The people,” said Caldwell. “Everybody kind of laughs at me on the Canadian team. I know everyone on deck.
“I’m chatty. I love meeting people. I love what swimming has enabled me to do. I have couches to crash on all over the world and friends all over the world.”